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April 13, 2015

16 Lessons for Creative Revenue Strategies and Community Engagement

(This post originally appeared in our weekly newsletter, The Local Fix. Subscribe here.)
In early April four major reports were released that address the intersection of local journalism, revenue sustainability and community engagement. Below are excerpts from the reports, drawing out the key lessons and findings from each. While the focus on a number of these reports is nonprofit journalism, the clear and actionable recommendations included below are relevant to any newsroom.

Sustainable Strategies: Lessons From a Year at The Texas Tribune

Professor Jake Batsell spent a year inside the Texas Tribune studying their business model and traveling the country talking with other newsrooms about their revenue strategies. His report from this year-long study were just released. They key question he tackled was “Can the Texas Tribune model be replicated?” And he admits that while unique circumstances have helped the Texas Tribune thrive there is still a lot any news organization can learn from their approach. Here are the four lessons he shares:
  • Persistent focus on revenue diversity – “News ventures that allow themselves to remain dependent on one or two streams of income are leaving themselves dangerously vulnerable.”
  • Entrepreneurial creativity and customization – “The Tribune has been relentless in unearthing new ways to pay for its journalism.”
  • A knack for converting local sensibilities into revenue – Figure out what the unique character of your area is and how to build experiences around it.
  • A tireless champion and fundraiser-in-chief – News organizations needs bold leadership and chief evangelist with personality, visibility and connections.
  • A shared sense of editorial and business mission – “The newsroom and business side have developed a mutual sense of trust underpinned by the Tribune’s nonprofit mission.”

Batsell’s report also includes useful sections on best practices in revenue strategies including: Sponsorships and underwriting, Events, Memberships, Philanthropy and Supplementary revenue streams like syndication, crowdfunding and monetizing data sets.

Screenshot 2015-04-13 16.21.09

Gaining Ground: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability

Gaining Ground is the third report from the Knight Foundations local media initiative. In their conclusion they list these key takeaways, which focus on business planning, experimenting and building community:
  • Set business goals: “News ventures that have been intentional about their growth, including developing clear business plans and financial targets, have scaled their operations at a faster pace. For organizations to transition from surviving to thriving, they must spend more time planning for the future, not simply accounting for the present.”
  • Experiment with new services: “Too few organizations have seriously piloted new earned income strategies, but the few that have tried have experienced initial successes attracting new forms of income, from native advertising to sponsorships for events and webinars. Lasting viability for nonprofit news ventures will only come with reduced reliability on fickle philanthropic funding.”
  • Invest in capacity, not just content: “Most organizations continue to devote the lion’s share of their budgets to editorial expenses, the lifeblood of their day-to-day work. News ventures that have grown, though, have consciously invested in future-oriented competencies, such as full-time staff in development and technical innovation, to increase engagement with online content.”
  • Transition from donor to membership model mentality: “Membership programs offers the promise of more sizeable and stable long-term funding from individual supporters and strengthens relationships with their audiences, making news ventures more keenly aware of community needs and more likely to engage audiences to have an impact.”
  • Plan for impact: “Nonprofits leading the way when it comes to capturing and communicating impact identify clear reporting objectives and ways they will measure those objectives from the outset.”
  • In-person events: “Corporations or institutions that pay to be associated with events hosted by the nonprofit news organization”
  • Advertising: “Corporations or institutions that purchase banner or display ads on the nonprofit news site”
  • Sponsorship: “Corporations or institutions that pay to associate their brand with the content of the nonprofit news organization”
  • Syndication: “Content sold to other organizations for republication”
  • Training: “Training courses sold on investigative reporting techniques”
  • Subscribers: “Individual subscriptions sold to specialty publications”

Creating Stickier News: What You Don’t Know About Web Traffic Might Hurt You

Professor Mathew Hindman, a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, released new research looking at how the attention and ad dollars that news gets (or more precisely, doesn’t get) online. “Stickiness… measures how likely users are to visit, and how often they go beyond the first click to the second or third. Sites with above-average stickiness grow their audience… those with below-average stickiness shrink. […] The problem of stickiness, of generating compounded audience growth, is the most urgent problem facing journalism today. If journalism needs an audience to succeed, then most digital publications are failing.” Nieman Lab has a good overview of the findings where they highlight this quote from Hindman’s paper:

“The bottom line is that any successful strategy for digital local news requires sites to grow their audience. This is obviously true for sites relying on ad revenue — though local newspaper sites cannot expect the same level of ad revenue per person that larger websites earn. Audience growth is just as essential for plans that rely on selling subscriptions. The current core audience of local news sites is too small to provide digital sustainability. Visitors who spend just a few minutes a month on a site are not good subscriber prospects. Even nonprofit journalism efforts need to demonstrate that their work is reaching a broad audience in order to ensure continued funding.”

Hindman offers some solutions. He writes: “Doing better requires newspapers to think differently about Web traffic. Newspapers need to invest heavily in measurement and online experiments. Just as important, they need to rethink what they are optimizing for: not raw traffic, but audience growth. Small gains in stickiness can compound enormously over time.” There is much more in the paper, which you can download here (PDF link).

U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015

The Pew Research Center released a major new study on smartphone use in the U.S. which had some specific findings about smartphones and news. From the report:  “A substantial majority of smartphone owners use their phone to follow along with news events near and far, and to share details of local happenings with others:”
  • “68% of smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally to follow along with breaking news events, with 33% saying that they do this frequently.”
  • “67% use their phone to share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their community, with 35% doing so frequently.”
  • “56% use their phone at least occasionally to learn about community events or activities, with 18% doing this frequently.”

“Each of these behaviors is common across a diverse group of smartphone owners,” wrote the researchers. “Mobile news consumption is common even among older smartphone owners, who tend to use these devices for more basic activities. Four-in-ten smartphone owners ages 65 and older use their phone at least occasionally to keep up with breaking news, half use it to share information about local happenings, and one-third use it to stay abreast of events and activities in their community.”

Disclosure: The Knight Foundation, which published two of the studies above, funds the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project.